Strong U.S. squad ready to haul in the Olympic medals

EUGENE, Oregon Mon Jul 2, 2012 7:14am EDT

Team jackets for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team are displayed at the U.S. Olympic athletics trials in Eugene, Oregon June 21, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Team jackets for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team are displayed at the U.S. Olympic athletics trials in Eugene, Oregon June 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

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EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) - Americans appear ready to swoop into London and grab a bountiful supply of athletics medals after some stirring performances at the just concluded U.S. Olympic trials.

From Ashton Eaton's decathlon world record to seven other world-leading 2012 marks, U.S. athletes showed strength and depth as they splashed through wet and often cool conditions to determine in head-to-head competition their team for the upcoming Games.

U.S. coaches Andrew Valmon and Amy Deem declined to put numbers on their expectations in the British capital, but the word "strong" popped up frequently in conversations on America's chances.

"We have some areas that we are going to medal in we don't traditionally medal in. I think that is what makes this team special," Deem said without being specific.

Valmon pointed to Eaton's decathlon record, the emergence of a group of young 400 meters runners to back up reigning Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt and Galen Rupp's distance double at the trials as positive signs for the U.S. men.

"I think we have a strong team," he said.

Aries Merritt, the year's fastest hurdler; shot putter Reese Hoffa, the triple jump 1-2 of Christian Taylor and Will Claye and world high jump champion Jesse Williams, who narrowly made the team, add to the U.S. men's strong nucleus.

The versatility is not as great on the women's side, but sprinters Carmelita Jeter, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross, long jumper Brittney Reese and 400 meters hurdler Lashinda Demus provide a strong starting point.

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"I'm sure the U.S. will continue to lead the medals table," highly regarded international statistician Richard Hymans told Reuters.

"The overall strength of the USA still far exceeds the brilliance of distance running nations like Kenya and Ethiopia, and the virtuosity in technical events of countries such as Germany and Russia."

But Hymans, the author of a history of the U.S. Olympic trials, is not so sure the Americans will reach the goal of 30 medals former athletics chief Doug Logan set as a target and successor Max Siegel endorsed.

Hymans suggested a medal count of 22-25 may be more likely.

That would be in line with the 23 medals the United States claimed in 2008.

The Beijing showing, which included only seven gold medals, set off an uproar especially after both the U.S. men's and women's 4x100 meters relay teams dropped the baton in the opening round.

U.S. officials launched an investigation into how America prepares their team for the Games, and Logan's call for 30 medals was one of its byproducts.

Hymans, who is British, held out hope for improvement in London.

"The U.S. team is as good as the 2008 squad, and may turn out to be better," he said.

Gold could come from Eaton in the decathlon with world champion Trey Hardee in the mix, Merritt in the 400, the 4x400 meters relay, Taylor or Claye in the triple jump and any of a trio of U.S. shot putters, Hymans said.

He projected U.S. sprinters Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon could be in the chase for medals against Jamaica's powerhouse squad of world champion Yohan Blake and world record holder Usain Bolt.

In the hurdles, always a U.S. strength, China's 2004 Olympic champion Liu Xiang appears the favorite despite Aries Merritt's season-leading time.

Jeter, Felix and Richards-Ross should all challenge for gold, but like the men, they face strong opposition, Hymans said.

The men's and women's sprint relays also could be a close fight if U.S. teams can make the baton passes.

(Reporting By Gene Cherry in Eugene, Oregon; editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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